#35 – Dick Bernard: President Obama speaks from Cairo

Yesterday afternoon I made a spur of the moment visit to an administrator at a Minneapolis college.  I found his office.  Luckily he was in.  I knocked.  “Come in”, he said.  He was looking at his computer screen, watching a replay of the President Obama speech in Cairo from some hours earlier.
My visit to this college office was not to talk about Obama or the Middle East or such.  I did the business I planned to do, and departed.  We didn’t even mention the speech.  He and I have never talked politics.  I don’t know what his politics is. 
But one of my enduring memories of Obama’s speech in Cairo will definitely be walking into that office, and seeing Tom watching the President speak on his computer screen.  It will remind me of those iconic photographs of families sitting around their radio listening to President Roosevelt address the nation on some critical issue or another in the 1930s or 1940s.  Roosevelt, too, was a master of the art of communications with a distant public. 
My guess is that the scene I witnessed yesterday was repeated  in countless and varied settings here and around the world, particularly in the Muslim world.
As is predictable, every word, every facial expression, every single nuance of the Presidents long speech will be dissected, analyzed and interpreted for its meaning.   The interpreters will focus on their own particular favorite issue, whether he said the right or wrong thing about it, and then “spin” it to their particular preference.
It was an international speech, to the Muslim world in particular, and because of the miracle of technology it can be watched and re-watched over and over and over again.  What Obama said, yesterday, he knows he will be held to.  This was not a campaign speech; rather it was the leader of a powerful country speaking to the entire world. 
Personally, I think the key facets of this speech, yesterday in Cairo at about this time of day U.S. time, were its symbolic aspects:
A.  that it was specifically addressed to the Muslim world;
B.  that it was given in the Muslim world, in Cairo;
C. that it specifically acknowledged and honored the Muslim tradition and the people who are part of that major world religion;
D. that he chose specifically to publicly acknowledge the role of the United States in the overthrow of the elected government of Iran in 1953.
Yesterday, today and beyond there will be endless analysis of the Presidents speech. 
While there are endless and immense problems which no speech can pretend to solve, my own prediction is that President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, is historically very significant, and can give impetus to a major shift in global relationships.  It provides a floor for new conversations; an opportunity to think in different ways.
He was speaking to world leaders, yes; but he was speaking even more to those ordinary people who in many settings throughout the Muslim world were watching his image on television and listening to his words, perhaps much like common Americans listened to Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II, and then went out and contributed to the necessary effort to accomplish the tasks at hand.
My hope is that all of us will use this speech as an opportunity to move forward, rather than to get mired in the “same old, same old” of focusing on what was or wasn’t said, and how precisely the administration follows through on the text, or not.  Certainly it is important to be vigilant, and to even be critical, but this speech was an entire “book”, more than simply a chapter or a few paragraphs.   
http://www.whitehouse.gov to access a video or transcript of the entire speech